Spike Lee doesn’t mince words in “BlacKkKlansman.” He ignites them, and illustrates them with inflammatory images. This is a freewheeling account of an African-American cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. It’s uneven as narrative drama, but stunning as a furious, in-your-white-face outcry against racial hatred in America’s past and turbulent present, with pointed references to President Trump.
There’s much more to the movie than its story, but the story itself is a fascinating, mostly factual piece of cultural history. Ron Stallworth is the first black detective on the Colorado Springs police force; he’s played by John David Washington.
Ron finds a classified ad in a local newspaper offering information on the Klan—screwy but true. He decides to answer it, and represents himself as white and a committed hater of blacks and Jews. This impulsive approach is all well and good until someone calls and suggests a face-to-face meeting. That’s when the black cop, being indelibly black, needs an actual strategy. His solution is partnering with a white cop, Flip Zimmerman, who happens to be Jewish; he’s played by Adam Driver. Ron remains Ron on the phone, while Flip pretends to be Ron in person, seeking out and ingratiating himself with a grotesque assortment of hard-core bigots.
The grotesqueness would be over the top if the director cared about a top. Most of the local Klansmen are played for laughs, and some of the results are hilarious. But the downside of the mockery is glibness; if only the racists and terrorists of the world came as clearly labeled as this flagrantly wacko crew.
John David Washington, though, grounds Ron in emotional reality; it’s a fine performance, earnest yet rapier-smart. And Topher Grace plays David Duke, the Klan’s Grand Wizard, as a reedy and hollow malignity. “America first!” he cries, just as the real-life David Duke has done in his public diatribes; the onscreen Duke talks about what’s needed “for America to achieve its greatness again.”
Those are, of course, a couple of thumbs in the eyes of Donald Trump. “BlacKkKlansman” is an incendiary take on American history, sometimes using images that Spike Lee has used before—from “Gone With the Wind” to D.W. Griffith’s wildly racist epic “Birth of a Nation”. But these images have never been so appalling as in this context, and context is everything here. In a style that’s short on cohesion but long on passion, Spike Lee’s movie insists on connecting what has happened in this nation with what’s happening now. That means cutting loose from the 1970s and fitting “BlacKkKlansman” with a devastataing coda—video footage of the white nationalist rally that took place one year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Trump’s infamous remarks about it. Never has a contemporary film shattered the dramatic unities with such force.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.